Today my mum commented ‘T is such a good dad.’ I stared at her blankly. I can count on one hand the number of times she has seen T, my partner, with Whoopsy. Not only that, but what she has witnessed is some pretty basic parenting on his behalf. I’m not saying T isn’t a good dad. He’s… you know… a normal amount of dad. He has his good moments (taking Whoopsy to his first art gallery) and his terrible moments (bringing home a rabid badger from the park after mistaking him for the baby). In the last five months no one has ever told me that I’m a good mum. It’s understandable. For one thing, I write bitchy blogs about my child. And most of my calories are lost through eye rolling these days. Plus my pet name for my baby, which I use liberally in public, is the demon child. Which is meant affectionately. Sometimes. Regardless, I don’t think I’m a worse parent than T. Although clearly my mother disagrees.
It got the tired cogs of my mind going. After seven months on maternity leave, they’re pretty rusty and there’s a few bats using them to nest so bear with me here. The criteria upon which we – T and I – are judged as parents is significantly different. As far as I can see, to be considered a good dad, a man has to show up. Feed the baby once or twice to be considered exemplary. Kick a ball around in the garden to have the local mothers swooning over his overt, but paternal, masculinity. To be considered a half decent mum, a woman has to be ever present, tick off a long list of criteria with regards to meeting the child’s physical, mental and spiritual needs, be able to recite every one of the child’s food likes and dislikes, and look great in a size ten dress whilst doing it.
I know this to be true because I was brought up by two single parents. My sister and I worshipped my father. This was on account of him caring for us one evening a week, during which he would feed us snacks and treats, and give us £1 pocket money the following morning to buy the Beano. To win the accolade of best parent in the world, all our dad had to do was show up at our school sport’s day and buy us an ice cream before rapidly departing.
My mother, on the other hand, cared for us six nights a week, oversaw all of our life admin from dental appointments (every six months and not a day later) and piano lessons with Barry the Pervert, as well as trying to support our creative, musical and sporting whims. She fed us only the most nutritious home cooked food and instilled in us a sense of discipline (this is a polite way of saying sometimes she smacked us across the face. Believe me, we deserved it). All this and she still had to find time to clean out the aggressive family hamster on a weekly basis. Regardless, she was a crap mum as far as my sister and I were concerned. Her lemon chicken tasted like washing up liquid and she limited our television watching to one hour a day. Of course, retrospectively, we are both clear about who brought us up and moulded us, supported us through every step of our lives and sacrificed their own needs to meet ours in order to make us the people we are today. But it’s too little too late. She gave us everything and we gave her hell. In return for ruining the best years of her life, we buy her a £3.99 card from Clintons every Mother’s Day that reads ‘Best Mum in the World’ and some wilted tulips from Tesco. What a trade off.
It’s been suggested that this imbalance in gender expectations is a result of thousands of years of evolution: men are programmed to implant their seed and bugger off whereas women are tied to their children through the ‘maternal gene’. To put it another way, dads, across the world and throughout time, have been so utterly shit that we literally applaud men for existing. ‘You’re a great dad!‘ really translates to ‘You’ve stayed longer than the wet patch on the bedding took to dry out – congratulations!’ On the flip side, so many mums have run households (caveholds?) – often whilst holding down one or more jobs – quietly and with dignity that we now expect all women to do this as a bare minimum.
Once I started thinking about this, I started seeing how this attitude permeates through society. T has been on three international trips since Whoopsy was born. On his first trip, in a moment of frustration at this perceived imbalance of commitment to our kid, I booked a long weekend in Paris with my friends. I later found out that my Insta photos from the trip had been the source of gossip at a party of people I barely knew. ‘Didn’t she just have a baby?’ ‘Whose looking after her baby whilst she’s gallivanting around?’ ‘What a great dad her boyfriend must be.’ Do you imagine anyone saw T’s photos from when he was abroad without Whoopsy and I and repeated those same sentiments? ‘What a wonderful mum she must be to provide childcare to her child’. Highly doubtful.
T has started talking about baby #2. Casually, almost jokingly. But the underlying message is there: prepare your womb, lady… I have more seeds to implant. I have serious reservations about agreeing to more children because, despite trying to educate my partner before the baby was born about the fundamental inequalities in parenting and laying down strict rules about how we would co-parent to counteract them, I have, perhaps inevitably, become the primary parent. More children, for me, would mean more days home from work being thrown up on. More dental appointments to remember. More school bags to pack. More wilted fucking tulips.
Only if the commitment, the responsibility and the time required to raise Whoopsy falls equally across T and I – and T is a great co-parent as well as a great father – will another child be considered. But perhaps there will be additional demon children as I’ve got a number of strategies to equalise our roles.
- I’ve started playing dumb when I’m asked questions about Whoopsy and refer to T to respond, regardless of how obvious it is that I know the answer. “How old is your son?” “Um, nearly a year I think?” “He’s five months, Clara” “Oh, right, my bad”.
- I’ve also occasionally referred to our child by random names just to highlight my lack of emotional attachment. “Saffron… SAFFRON…” “Who are you shouting at?!” “Um… our child?” “Our son is called Whoopsy” “It’s a boy?!”
- In addition, I’m hotfooting it back to work. If mine and T’s daily schedules are equally demanding, I have ammunition to challenge the higher expectations. Eight hours in an office sounds positively luxurious these days.
- I’m going to pick up a hobby that requires me to leave the house for a few hours once a week so that I have a frequent slot of being ‘Clara’ and not ‘Mum’ whilst T regularly has to be on the clock as Dad. I’m kidding. I’m going to go to a bar by myself once a week to drink copious amounts of gin so that I have a frequent slot of being ‘happy’ whilst T has a frequent slot of having baby rice dripping down his face.
- And, perhaps most importantly, I’m going to keep my bloody legs shut. Better late than never.